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International Socialist Review Issue 33, January–February 2004

The German Ideology

By Phil Gasper

Phil Gasper is a philosophy professor at Notre Dame de Namur University in northern California. This is the first in a series on Marxist Classics.

THE GERMAN Ideology was the first work in which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sketched out the framework for understanding history and society that was to guide their theoretical and practical activities for the rest of their lives. The book was written in 1845—46 when the authors were in their mid-twenties. Both Marx and Engels were born in small towns in the German Rhineland–Marx in Trier in 1818 and Engels in Barmen two years later. Although the Rhineland was a province of Prussia, Napoleon’s armies had occupied it until 1814, and its intellectual life had thus been deeply affected by the ideas of the French Revolution. These ideas were very much in the air as Marx and Engels grew up.

Because of Germany’s economic and political backwardness, what had been acted out in practice in France came to be reflected in philosophy in Marx and Engels’ homeland.1 As Marx later put it, "In politics, the Germans have thought what other nations have done."2 By the 1820s, the idealist philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, with its emphasis on change–in particular historical change–had become dominant in Germany. Hegel believed that history was to be explained in terms of the development of ideas, indeed that history was merely a series of stages in the development of World Spirit or Absolute Mind. But Hegel’s writing was highly obscure and open to different interpretations. Conservatives interpreted him as saying that the emergence of the highly authoritarian Prussian state represented the culmination of world history. After Hegel’s death in 1831, the radical Young Hegelians rejected this conclusion as absurd and instead used his emphasis on change as a justification for the democratic transformation of society. They rejected the notion of Absolute Mind as a metaphysical extravagance, but remained idealists in the sense that they held that historical progress was the result of humanity achieving self-understanding.

Both Marx and Engels were members of the Young Hegelian movement in Berlin for a time–Marx when he was a student at the University of Berlin and Engels while he was stationed in the city for his military service. Unlike Marx, who completed a doctorate in philosophy, Engels did not pursue formal schooling very far, but he was a fine writer and had a thorough grasp of the latest philosophical ideas. Between 1839 and 1842, Engels published nearly 50 articles, including two acclaimed anonymous pamphlets in which he defended the ideas of the Young Hegelians against the reactionary philosophy of Hegel’s contemporary, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling.

But Marx and Engels were soon to break with the Young Hegelians. Initially, and independently, they were strongly influenced by the work of Ludwig Feuerbach, who rejected the idealism of the other Young Hegelians and offered a materialist analysis of religion. But even more importantly, events took both Marx and Engels away from the abstract discussion of ideas detached from the real world. Marx received his PhD in 1841, but an academic career was ruled out as a new period of political reaction began in Prussia and the Young Hegelians were denied university positions. Instead, Marx became the editor of a radical liberal newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung. It was this experience that led him to settle accounts with all varieties of Hegelianism. As one commentator put it, the

young Marx is often portrayed as having come to a revolutionary understanding of society through a critique of Hegel’s texts on the state and society. The biographical fact, however, is that he came to the content of his critique of the Hegelian view of the state through a year and a half of rubbing his nose against the social and political facts of life, which he encountered as the crusading editor of the most extreme leftist democratic newspaper in pre-1848 Germany.3

Marx himself later commented on this period of his life saying, "I experienced for the first time the embarrassment of having to take part in discussions on so-called material interests."4 In particular, following the debates in the Prussian parliament, he rejected the Hegelian idea that the state was–or could be–above classes.

By 1843, Marx was beginning to recognize that the ideals of the French Revolution, with its call for liberty and democracy, could never be achieved in a society based on material inequality. Formal freedom and democracy might exist in such a society, but they would be subverted to the interests of those who controlled the wealth. Real freedom was impossible in a society divided into exploiters and exploited. What was needed, Marx concluded, was not formal equality before the law, but a society of genuine equality in which economic power was not in the hands of a privileged minority. What was needed, in other words, was the abolition of private property. Thus, Marx’s commitment to radical democracy and human liberation led him to communism.

Marx had already reached the materialist conclusion that the starting point for understanding human society is not the realm of ideas, but actual human beings and the material conditions in which they live. But he had not yet come to the view that the working class was central to the project of transforming society. Two things finally brought him to this conclusion. The first was his move to Paris in late 1843 after the censors closed the Rheinische Zeitung. France was economically and politically far more advanced than Germany and Marx came into contact for the first time with an organized working-class movement. The second factor was the influence of Engels.

Marx and Engels had met briefly in 1842, but had not got on very well. Shortly afterwards, Engels left for England to work in his father’s business in Manchester. By this time, Engels already regarded himself as a communist (a year earlier than Marx) and he immediately became involved in the British working-class movement and began the research that was to culminate in his path-breaking study The Condition of the Working Class in England, eventually published in 1845. In late 1842, Engels also wrote an important article, "Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy" which contained in embryo many of the ideas that Marx and he were later to develop in greater detail. Engels’ article had a great influence on Marx, turning him towards the study of political economy. It was this that led Marx to understand the revolutionary role of the working class in terms of its role in the system of production and its ability to shut it down.

When Marx and Engels met again in 1844, they found themselves in complete political agreement and began their lifelong partnership. They collaborated first on The Holy Family, a long critique of some of the Young Hegelians, who they had come to see as pompous windbags who refused to participate in real political activity. Shortly afterwards, Marx was expelled from Paris by the authorities and moved to Brussels. It was here that The German Ideology was written, which was intended to be both a final settling of accounts with the Young Hegelians and, more importantly, an exposition of Marx and Engels’ own views on materialism, revolution and communism. Although much of the book is concerned with the first of these tasks, it is the second that remains of much greater interest.5

The main criticism of the Young Hegelians is that they wrongly hold that human progress is held back primarily by illusions, mistaken ideas and false consciousness. In fact, this view, minus the fancy philosophical underpinnings, is still popular–for instance, among those who think the solution to the environmental crisis is for individuals to adopt simpler lifestyles, or in a more extreme form by those post-modernists who hold that reality is created by "discourse." In response, Marx and Engels argue that

This demand to change consciousness amounts to a demand to interpret reality in another way, i.e. to recognize it by means of another interpretation. The Young-Hegelian ideologists, in spite of their allegedly "world-shattering" statements, are the staunchest conservatives. The most recent of them have found the correct expression for their activity when they declare they are only fighting against "phrases." They forget, however, that to these phrases they themselves are only opposing other phrases, and that they are in no way combating the real existing world when they are merely combating the phrases of this world. (p. 41)

Instead of starting with ideas, society can only be understood and ultimately changed, by examining the material realities on which it is based.

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way. (p. 42)

The fundamental fact about real individuals is that they must engage in production in order to survive, and this shapes every other aspect of their lives.

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production. (p. 42)

The material conditions of production include both the forces of production–the methods and technology used in production–and what Marx and Engels call here the "form of intercourse" between individuals, or what they later came to call the "social relations of production." This includes the division of labor within production, which at a certain point in history gives rise to distinct social classes with their own antagonistic interests. On this basis develops the whole of the rest of society, including culture, social structures and the institutions of the state. This is the starting point of Marx and Engels’ materialist conception of history–"the ‘history of humanity’ must always be studied and treated in relation to the history of industry and exchange." (p. 50)

The social structure and the State are continually evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people’s imagination, but as they really are; i.e. as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will….

In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. (pp. 46—7)

But the ideas to be found in any given society are not simply the result of material conditions in general, they are also a reflection of the interests of the dominant class.

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas. (p. 64)

In arguing that the ideas in people’s heads have to be explained in terms of the material conditions of their lives, Marx and Engels were following in the footsteps of Feuerbach, but they also criticize Feuerbach for ignoring the way in which over time human activity changes those conditions and gives rise to new ones, leading to profound changes in the rest of society. "As far as Feuerbach is a materialist he does not deal with history, and as far as he considers history he is not a materialist. With him materialism and history diverge completely." (p. 64) In contrast to Feuerbach’s static conception, Marx and Engels point to the deep tensions that exist within societies that are divided into antagonistic classes, and which drive history forward:

The forces of production, the state of society and consciousness, can and must come into contradiction with one another, because…intellectual and material activity–enjoyment and labor, production and consumption–devolve on different individuals, and…the only possibility of their not coming into contradiction lies in the negation [i.e. abolition] in its turn of the division of labor. (p. 52)

All struggles within the State, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy and monarchy, the struggle for the franchise, etc. etc. are merely the illusory forms in which the real struggles of the different classes are fought out among one another. (p. 54)

A large part of The German Ideology is devoted to giving an account of European history that concretely illustrates these general ideas. In particular, Marx and Engels describe the way in which feudal society developed, and how tensions between the productive forces and the form of intercourse eventually led to the emergence of capitalism and the triumph of the bourgeoisie.

This contradiction between the productive forces and the form of intercourse, which…has occurred several times in past history, without, however, endangering the basis, necessarily on each occasion burst out in a revolution, taking on at the same time various subsidiary forms, such as all-embracing collisions, collisions of various classes, contradiction of consciousness, battle of ideas, etc., political conflict, etc. From a narrow point of view one may isolate one of these subsidiary forms and consider it as the basis of these revolutions; and this is all the more easy as the individuals who started the revolutions had illusions about their own activity according to their degree of culture and the stage of historical development.

Thus all collisions in history have their origin, according to our view, in the contradiction between the productive forces and the form of intercourse. (pp. 88—9)

Just as such contradictions emerged as feudalism developed, Marx and Engels argue that they will inevitably appear in capitalism as well. It is for this reason that they claim that communist revolution is not a utopian ideal, but something that will be produced by actual material conditions, when circumstances "have rendered the great mass of humanity ‘propertyless,’ and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development." Without a high level of production, scarcity cannot be abolished, and the result of revolution would be that "want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced." In addition, in a world of "universal competition" in which all countries are part of a single economic system, revolution cannot survive in a single country, since "each extension of intercourse would abolish local communism." With these few prophetic remarks, Marx and Engels provide an explanation applicable to the failure of the Russian Revolution–isolated in an economically backward country–more than 70 years later. They continue:

The mass of propertyless workers–the utterly precarious position of labor-power on a mass scale cut off from capital or from even a limited satisfaction and, therefore, no longer merely temporarily deprived of work itself as a secure source of life–presupposes the world market through competition. The proletariat can thus only exist world-historically, just as communism, its activity, can only have a "world-historical" existence. (p. 56)

The conditions for successful communist revolution thus presuppose an integrated world economy in which the mass of the population finds it increasingly difficult to secure a decent life–not a bad summary of the effects of globalization at the start of the 21st century.

Having set out their conception of history, Marx and Engels draw four further conclusions about the possibility and nature of communist revolution.

(1) In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class;

(2) The conditions under which definite productive forces can be applied are the conditions of the rule of a definite class of society, whose social power, deriving from its property, has its practical-idealistic expression in each case in the form of the State; and, therefore, every revolutionary struggle is directed against a class, which till then has been in power;

(3) In all revolutions up till now the mode of activity always remained unscathed and it was only a question of a different distribution of this activity, a new distribution of labor to other persons, whilst the communist revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity, does away with labor, and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves, because it is carried through by the class which no longer counts as a class in society, is not recognized as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc. within present society; and

(4) Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew. (pp. 94—5)

Marx and Engels argue that the working class under capitalism occupies a unique position. Unlike the bourgeoisie under feudalism, for example, workers do not have their own form of private property to protect. In this sense, it is a "class which no longer counts as a class in society"–a class which, when it moves into activity, will not fight just for its own interests, but for the interests of humanity as a whole. As the forces of production come into conflict with capitalist relations of production, the crisis can only be permanently resolved by the abolition of private property and its replacement by communal control of the economy, creating a society in which individual lives are no longer at the mercy of impersonal market forces, and in which true freedom therefore becomes possible. But such a transformation requires "the alteration of men on a mass scale," something that can only take place in the course of struggle itself, culminating in the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society. It is the material situation itself that leads workers to fight to protect their interests, but in the course of doing so their consciousness changes both to see the need to replace the whole system and to give them the confidence and vision to do so.

The German Ideology was never published in Marx and Engels’ lifetimes. Several publishers, who either objected to its critique of the Young Hegelians or feared that its radical ideas would attract the wrath of the Prussian censors, turned it down, and it was eventually abandoned, as Marx put it, "to the gnawing criticism of the mice." Fortunately, the manuscript survived, and it remains today a classic introduction to the materialist understanding of history, capitalism and revolution.

1 Germany was not united as a single country until much later in the 19th century. At this time, the German population was still divided between dozens of small states, Prussia being by far the largest.

2 Robert C. Tucker (ed.), "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction," in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edition (New York: Norton, 1978), p. 59.

3 Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume I: State and Bureaucracy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977) p. 31.

4 Tucker, preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, p. 3.

5 The German Ideology is a long work, divided into several sections, but only part one, "Feuerbach: Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook," is widely read today. All quotations from The German Ideology in this article are from the edition edited by C.J. Arthur (New York: International Publishers, 1970).

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